Examples of Confusion (2013)

for flute, oboe, clarinet, soprano saxophone, alto saxophone, two percussionists, and piano

Duration: 8 minutes
Examples of Confusion bears the same name as a sequence of fifteen very small stories by author and translator Lydia Davis. Here is the complete fourth story from the set:

In the brief power outage, I feel my own electricity has been cut off and I will not be able to think. I fear that the power outage may have erased not only the work I have done but also a part of my own memory.

And here is a fragment from the fourteenth:

I had such trouble finding this place, I believe I did not find it. I am talking to the person I came here to meet, but I believe he is still alone, waiting for me.

Among the qualities that appeal to me in Davis’s writing is the uncanny gulf between the precision and lucidity of her style and the ambiguous nature of the experiences she describes. Taken as a cycle, the stories illuminate her central theme from different perspectives; as we read, we feel we are getting closer and closer to understanding what she means by “confusion.” But it is an elusive notion, ultimately; so, as I reread the cycle, my understanding of her meaning becomes fuzzier and more complex, while the architecture of the collection becomes clearer to me. This is similar to how I feel as I study and contemplate certain works of music and poetry.

Like Davis’s cycle, my piece is a set of enchained miniatures, each reimagining or re-contextualizing a small set of figures. Three simple figures are presented immediately in the first five bars of the piece: rising, tapering legato scales; descending, brittle staccato lines; and a little three-voice cadential curlicue. These are arranged in a series of developing patterns that eventually overgrow their boundaries and spill over into confusion before finding new configurations. In its nine minutes, the piece moves through four movements, played without pause. The first is a perpetual motion; the second is a sparse, droll movement that has something balletic about it; the third introduces a new ingredient—a cantus firmus of sorts first heard in the tubular bells and alto saxophone—around which the other parts swirl in a mechanized fashion; and the fourth movement is a brief conclusion.

I picked an ensemble whose high tessitura and clear articulation matches the “objectivity” of the figures I chose; but which is also capable of resonance (particularly in the piano, vibraphone, tam-tam, and tubular bells) which can blur and obscure identities.

Commissioned by OSSIA New Music

Premiere: Kilbourn Hall, Rochester, NY — December 2013 by OSSIA New Music with Boon Hua Lien, conductor